Journalists in Myanmar have faced tremendous challenges and difficulties over the past two years as they continue to document the popular resistance against the military regime and the people’s demand to restore civilian rule and democracy.
This sums up the special briefing organized by the International Press Institute to mark the second anniversary of the February 2021 coup. IPI was joined by Mizzima News founding editor Soe Myint and freelance journalist Thin Lei Win who both highlighted the critical role of the independent media in countering the lies of the junta and spreading awareness about the pro-democracy movement.
Thin referred to the junta as a small group of people with arms and resources while the vast majority of the population wants to be free from them. Soe added that the extension of the state of emergency reflects the military’s desire to remain in power even if it lacks credibility and legitimacy.
Despite the vast resources at its disposal, the junta could not effectively govern as pro-democracy forces and armed ethnic groups have gained footholds across the country. In fact, the successful “Silent Strike” during the coup anniversary was widely seen as a loud indictment of the junta rule. People protested by refusing to go out in the streets.
Thoroughfares were deserted on Wednesday in major cities as Myanmar people staged a silent strike to mark the second anniversary of the military coup. The regime reportedly plans to hold a pro-military rally outside Yangon City Hall at noon. #WhatsHappeningInMyanmar pic.twitter.com/2GcJPG3Nrc
— The Irrawaddy (Eng) (@IrrawaddyNews) February 1, 2023
Documenting the political crisis are citizen journalists and independent media networks who endure numerous risks in order to do their jobs. At least 130 journalists had been arrested for reporting on resistance to the junta. Around 72 remain behind bars and could receive harsh prison terms from junta-appointed courts.
During the online briefing, Thin talked about the trauma experienced by journalists who are reporting on the frontlines of the resistance. Those who are suspected of sympathizing with pro-democracy forces are threatened with state-backed reprisals. Even their families are targeted by pro-military forces.
This has undermined the work of the press aside from cutting off the business revenues of media outlets which suddenly lost ads, subscriptions, and subsidies. Readers could not be seen patronizing news companies that are accused of being critical to the military regime.
Forced to escape the country or to go into hiding, most media companies operated with revoked licenses. Against these odds and the constant threat of state crackdown, Myanmar’s independent media became more relevant as they continued to provide the public with credible information about the junta and the ongoing civil disobedience movement.
Soe noted that Mizzima’s readers increased as it adopted innovative and creative ways to deliver solution-oriented news. Thin explained the difficulty of sustaining news coverage if the focus is only on the conflict and human rights abuses; hence the need to adopt a broader set of themes that resonate with the global audience such as climate injustice, biodiversity loss, and Russia’s relationship with the junta.
Instead of succumbing to nonstop attacks after the coup, journalists persisted in carrying out their work. They embodied what Soe described as the principles that inspire the Myanmar citizens to move forward: “Resistance, resilience, restoration.”
Independent media and independent journalists are supposed to disappear, supposed to be killed, and supposed to stop… but two years after, we are able to do more than what we did even before the coup. This is resilience.
As the junta becomes more desperate to perpetuate itself in power, Thin and Soe emphasized the role of global solidarity in putting a spotlight on what’s happening in the country, especially the crucial task being undertaken by the media. This point was echoed by IPI when it organized the special briefing. “Amid multiple crises around the world, it’s crucial to not lose sight of what’s happening in Myanmar and to continue efforts to support the country’s journalists.”
For Thin, this also necessitates an engagement with foreign governments and technology companies, which continue to conduct business with the junta even though the tools and equipment are then weaponized against communities and remote villages across the country.
That is where the international community can come in to make sure that countries that supposedly adhere to human rights standards actually do something about it and make sure that even if they have sold these technologies to the Myanmar government, they are no longer operable.
Soe urged global stakeholders to ensure that Myanmar is not silenced or rendered invisible every time the junta restricts internet access by deploying alternative means of communication facilities.
Soe also called upon the international community and funders to keep Myanmar on their radar. A lack of attention to the context has only fueled the crucial funding support that CSOs, activists and independent media require. As a recent call to action for donors by Mizzima stressed, “a lack of appreciation for the current Myanmar situation hinders donors from providing the full necessary support for the country’s independent media…investing in Myanmar's independent media is enabling freedom of speech in Southeast Asia, a region where there is little incentive to protect freedom of expression domestically.”
Thin and Soe warned that the junta wants the world to forget Myanmar, and the best way to defeat this sinister aim is to amplify more local voices. Indeed, the military regime is brutally silencing dissent, but the Myanmar people have found imaginative ways to evade censorship.
For example, Thin shared this powerful excerpt from an online diary of a Yangon journalist who wrote about the motivation to persevere amid the unrelenting violence of the junta.
“But when after an interview, people tell me that they are grateful for the opportunity to share their stories, I am both sad and happy. At the very least, with this work, I can stand by the people who are oppressed unjustly and help them. I will continue my journey with this mind and this strength.”
“So let the nightmares come. I will conquer them.”
“The international community must renew its commitment to Myanmar and protect and defend the courageous journalists who are risking their lives to report on the regime’s ongoing human rights abuses,” said IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen in a statement released after the briefing.